View Full Version : Canon 300mm f4 L IS USM or Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens?

Sabyasachi Patra
07-03-2009, 10:52 PM
I have been asked this question a number of times. Shall I buy the Canon 300mm f4 L IS USM or the 400mm f5.6L?

Before I start comparing, let me tell you that I had pondered over the same question in 2002 before choosing the Canon 300mm F4 L IS USM. With my increased understanding in the last seven years, will I make the same decision that I did earlier?

Well a disclaimer to start with. Both are very capable lenses. You will get good results with either of the two. :-)

Image Stabilisation:
The first difference between the two is that the 300mm lens has image stabillisation. The image stabilization is good for upto two stops. That means, if you can normally get sharp shots at 1/500 th of a sec, using the IS you can get sharp shots at even 1/125th of a second. Ofcourse the rule of thumb for handholding says you can get sharp shots if you are shooting at 1/focal length. So for the 300mm F4L IS USM lens, it should be 1/300th sec. And if IS gives 2 stops of benefit, that means you can get sharp shots at 1/60th sec. You will appreciate the need of image stabilisation, if you have ever climbed on top of an elephant to track tiger in the jungle.

The 400mm f5.6 L lens doesn’t have image stabilization. So according to the rule of thumb, you need to shoot at 1/400th sec to get sharp shots when you are handholding.

However, both these lenses are good for handholding and work well on monopod.
Check the following image. It was made with a flimsy manfrotto tripod, raised to its full extent and the shutter speed was 1/20th of second. Only image stabilisation can give you a sharp shot like this.
Wild boar scavenging on deer carcass - Indiawilds: Land of the Tiger. Conservation, Wildlife Photography, Communities (http://www.indiawilds.com/forums/showthread.php?t=315)

Two lenses & Focal length advantage:

The 300mm F4 L IS Lens comes in handy in low light situations in early morning and late evenings. Lot of times, I have sacrificed focal length for the extra stop that I have got from the f4 aperture. At times, it becomes the difference between a perfectly usable shot and a blurred image.

The 300mm lens also works well with a 1.4x converter. The combination becomes a 420mm f5.6 L IS USM lens. So you get advantage of 20mm over the 400mm f5.6 lens.

Is it only 20mm advantage?

We normally think that increase in 20 mm over a 400mm lens means an increase of (20/400)*100 = 5%

However, the image size is a function of square of the focal length used.

So the difference between 420 mm and 400 mm is {(Square of 420 – Square of 400)/Sq. of 400} * 100
= {[(420 *420) – (400*400)]/(400*400)}*100 = 10.25 %

Speed of AF

Any lens will slow down when used with a converter. However, I haven’t found the focusing speed with 1.4x II TC to be a problem in action shots. This combination is not significantly slower in autofocussing speed than the 400mm f5.6 L lens.

Quality of the 300mm F4L IS plus 1.4x TC combination:
The quality obtained is excellent with this Combo. Some of my photos have clicked with this combination has been printed at 20 inch by 30 inch size and sold to demanding art buyers.

Quality of the 300mm F4L IS lens plus 2x II converter:
The quality drops and I would not consider using such a combination. However, I had used this combination when I was focal length challenged.

400mm f5.6 L lens with 1.4xII TC:
I would not use this combination as the quality goes down. Ofcourse, in internet forums, there are people who will argue for countless hours in support of it. Though technically it is possible to fit a 1.4XII TC the combination becomes 560 f8 lens. With a 1 series camera you can autofocus using the central AF point.

Minimum Focussing Distance:
The minimum focussing distance of the 300mm F4 L IS USM lens is 5 feet. So you can use it for close subjects as well as isolate nature patterns etc for some macro work. The 400mm f5.6 L lens focusses at 11.5 feet. So if a tiger comes close to you, then it is a tough to get it in focus. Hence, the 300mm F4 L IS lens wins here as well.

The Canon 300mm F4 L IS USM lens price is 1210 USD as per B&H in USA. The 400mm f5.6 L is 1140 USD. These prices are excluding shipping. This price can be seen as an indication, as the grey market price in India is likely to be cheaper. 400m f5.6 L lens has a slight advantage in terms of price. However, it is insignificant to tilt the purchase decision.

To conclude, if I were to decide between the two lenses, then I will definitely choose the 300mm F4 L IS USM lens over the 400mm f5.6 L lens again.

The enclosed image of the tiger was taken from an elephant back. Canon EOS 10D, Canon EF 300mm f4 L IS USM, ISO 200, f4 at 1/90 sec

Dr. Kalpamoi Kakati
12-08-2010, 11:35 PM
Very interesting comparison of both the lenses.My query is ,for birding only,which will be better
1) 300mm f4 IS USM plus 1.4 extender
or 400mmf5.6 USM with or without extender. Thanks..

Mrudul Godbole
16-08-2010, 06:47 PM
For birding and birds in flight photography specifically, a 400mm f5.6 would be a good lens to use without a extender. The speed of autofocus reduces when an extender is attached to a teleconvertor.

If you want to use the lens for normal photograhy then 300mm f4 IS + 1.4 extender would be good as it comes with IS. While 400mm f5.6 is without IS.

So for birding a longer focal length lens like 400mm f5.6 will be good if used without the extender as autofocus speed is very important in flight photography.

Dr. Kalpamoi Kakati
16-08-2010, 07:06 PM
Thank you Mr Godbole. Let me clarify that Is it possible to get good sharp images consistently with 400mm f5.6 handheld in good light? My another concern is minimum focusing distance of the lens,almost twice that of 300mm f4L.With minimum focusing distance of 1.5metre ,300mm can be handy for macro photography as well.What do you say? Anyway,I will go for the 400mm only.How does this lens perform with teleconverter?BTW where can I get this in cheapest price .Are Bangkok and Singapore prices cheaper then India? Thanks..

Sabyasachi Patra
16-08-2010, 09:26 PM
Dr. Kakati,
I agree with Ms. Godbole's response.

You have to decide your lens based on the maximum usage. If your main photography is to be done at the 400mm end then it is better to go for the 400mm f5.6 L lens. If you want macro, mammals etc, then you should go for the 300mm and 1.4x combo.

I have extensively used the 300mm with 1.4x converter. With proper technique one can manage the slight drop in AF speed when a converter is attached.

Remember, for bird photography no lens can be enough. So even the 400mm may fall short for most of the birds. So one needs to be as close to the subject as possible. Either wait for the bird to come and perch close to you, or if possible crawl close to it.

In India, the duty is high. So Singapore appears cheaper and I have bought many items from there. I have never purchased from bangkok, so I am not aware. USA is even cheaper than these places. A lot of my purchases have been from US.